Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Review: Cindy Sheehan and the Starfish Movement

Cindy Sheehan is leaving the anti-war movement to which she gave so much life, energy, and focus. She will be back, no doubt, in some form. I wish her well in restoring herself and renewing her own life. But I firmly disagree (and this is a blue-moon moment) with William R. Pitt that "Anyone glad for her departure from activism is celebrating a disaster."

While I doubt I'd use the word "glad" to describe my own feelings, certainly "relieved" qualifies. At any rate, in no way does "disaster" describe this moment. Quite the contrary: this woman endured everything from divorce to death threats to arrest to public taunting and ridicule from the mass media; it is time she retreated and renewed.

There is also a broader theme to this, which I am going to explain with a book review. Yes, a book review. The book is The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. The authors are Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and they have written one of the most crystalline gems of social insight that I have seen in any non-fiction these past 20 years. In a mere 200 pages of text, these two Stanford grads provide more clarity of perspective on our society, its group psychologies and cultural transformations, than you are likely to get from a shelf full of punditry or a year's worth of television. I do not think I am overstating the case for this book: it is the most important and clarion piece of non-fiction to arise in this first decade of the 21st century. It is a book made for, and by, its era.

The metaphor of the title is a comparison of "top-down", hierarchically-structured groups and organizations, such as we are all familiar with in corporate America and government (that's the spider, who can be made lame from the loss of its legs and dead from decapitation); and the fresh wave of decentralized, leaderless, or non-hierarchical organizations that have become such a force in society over the past decade of the Internet (this is the "starfish," which can be chopped up into numerous pieces, each of which will respond by growing a new organism or member).

The book opens with a heady analysis of how a starfish phenomenon evolved in one particular category: the P2P file sharing services in the Napster/Grokster model. The authors show how the early versions of these spontaneous organizations got stuck in "spider" mode, and were therefore eventually trapped and killed by big corporate media and its legal juggernaut. But these Napster-type experiments benefited from such attacks by a response of ever-increasing differentiation, diversification, and "starfish"-style regrowth. Brafman and Beckstrom finally lead the reader to the eMule service, which took decentralization to the point of anonymity and total leaderlessness. Big Media cannot attack an entity like eMule, because it has no head, no governance, no bank accounts: there is nothing for a legal or corporate machine to assault, except for individual users of the service, who, aside from being virtually innumerable, are mostly children and rarely wealthy.

The authors go on to reveal both the beauty and the danger inherent in the starfish-mode of organizational being, drawing examples as diverse as Wikipedia and al Qaeda. Along the way, they present portraits of environmental groups, activist organizations, online merchants, and Internet services. But if this book stopped with mere sketches of eBay, Alcoholics Anonymous, Apache, craigslist, Goodwill Industries, and IBM, then it would be merely an interesting intellectual snack for the MBA crowd.

The Starfish and the Spider becomes a banquet of cultural insight because it digs past the surface that so many pundits and social commentators stop to admire. Brafman and Beckstrom turn the starfish on its back, examine it in varying light, carry it into vastly disparate environments, and constantly ask questions of it. In doing so, they discover some principles and characteristics common to starfish organizations and the people who inspire and influence their growth.

One of their most fascinating discoveries is in the figure of what they term "the catalyst." It is here that we are brought back to Cindy Sheehan (this is my own connection, so if you think it's a stupid association, don't blame the authors of the book). The catalyst is the person who founds a starfish group, the one who gives it form, ideas, value, focus, and meaning. Examples of catalysts that Brafman and Beckstrom offer are:

  • Granville Sharp, leader of the abolitionist movement against slavery in England

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the women's suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony later took up with still greater energy

  • Craig Newmark of craigslist

  • Bill Wilson of AA

  • One thing the authors point out is that

    a catalyst is like the architect of a house: he's essential to the long-term structural integrity, but he doesn't move in. In fact, when the catalyst stays around too long and becomes absorbed in his creation, the whole structure becomes more centralized.

    So one common feature to the life and health of a growing decentralized movement or organization is that the catalyst almost always leaves or at least recedes into the mesh of the whole, once the group has matured enough to work autonomously and to withstand assault. Whenever a catalyst attempts to assume a traditional, CEO-type of leadership role, the organization loses its dynamism, its life as a starfish, and becomes a centralized, hierarchical spider--much easier to mark, and then suppress or assimilate.

    For a corporate entity, this may not necessarily be a bad thing: growth-as-profit, after all, can be nurtured in a traditional corporate management structure. But growth-as-message can become stilled or silenced when there's a top dog in place, approving this, denying that; or simply being a figurehead in a particular place as the focus of activism or just attention.

    The anti-war movement has benefited enormously from Cindy Sheehan's presence, personality, experience, and energy. We have admired her from afar for some two years now: I first wrote about her here (note also that the fractiousness and in-fighting that Sheehan noted in her parting statement existed way back then, too).

    Since then, however, the movement has grown, thanks largely to Sheehan's example and leadership. But I agree with Brafman and Beckstrom, that a time inevitably comes for every starfish organization when its formative human force must retreat. In our own democracy's formative stage, George Washington had to decline the crown that his followers attempted to place on his head. Other catalysts have had to spurn a crown or a corner office, and always for the good of the whole, for the sake of the movement's continued growth.

    Since Sheehan first camped out in George Bush's backyard, Code Pink, IVAW, and hundreds of other "starfish arms and legs" have formed around her and taken on their own life in the anti-war sea. It is time that these organisms were allowed to share in both the light and the tribulation, the accolades and the calumny.

    The blogosphere--itself a starfish organization--has benefited from Sheehan's influence and example. I think she recognizes this as well, and thus chose Daily Kos as the forum for her parting message. It is perhaps only seemingly ironic that the world wide web is perhaps the least "spidery" vehicle of communication on earth today. Only on the Internet, for example, could you find a science writer for a stodgy paper like the New York Times writing a scathing indictment of the Bush administration--it happened today.

    As Brafman and Beckstrom point out in their book, this kind of seeming chaos is unique to a starfish-style organization: "When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity." Even on the website of a spider organization like the New York Times.

    Clearly, we probably need more chaos; and we certainly need more creativity. Congress has failed to carry out the will of the people, because it cannot respond to the fluid movement of the starfish; it is too mired in its own iron-stranded matrix of excess, corruption, deceit, and self-indulgence. As the authors of The Starfish and the Spider indicate, we can only overcome the turgid inertia of Washington politics by redoubling the starfish energy of the anti-war movement. In other words, it is time for a catalyst to step into the background, so that the whole is given renewed life. And so that a long-suffering and heroic Mom can once more feel the quiet joys of private life that the rest of us so often take for granted.


    Anonymous said...

    Brian: i agree (terry here) but i suspect the writer really wanted to say only this - to those on the right who think this is their victory, bugger off!.

    Brian Donohue said...

    If Brafman and Beckstrom are right in their reading of the social dynamics of open source organizations ("starfish"), and I obviously think they are, then so far from being a right wing victory, Sheehan's retreat is a neocon loss, because it will only give renewed vigor to the movement. What I see happening is a simultaneous increase and diffusion of energy in the movement: instead of all the focus being on the campout in Crawford or the march in Washington, there will be sit-ins at Cheney's house; confrontations with Congressional hawks when they are on break next month, and more. This is the sort of thing that B&B write about: the truly leaderless org spreads wider and attracts more interest the more you try to stamp it out, and especially when you crow about stamping it out. If there are any voices in the right wing media crying "Mission Accomplished" over the Cindy retreat, boy, will they ever be sorry they opened their mouths.